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Activity: Make a 3D Waterway

watercolor activity

In today’s activity, learn about Maya Lin’s recycled silver sculpture, Silver Upper White River, and how it is related to the waterways in Arkansas. Then make a 3D painting of your favorite waterway!

Look Closer: 

  • Maya Lin’s sculptures are often inspired by satellite images of land, like those seen on Google Maps. Try typing in your home address and zooming out. Does this artwork remind you of anything you might see on a map? 
  • While flying in an airplane, Maya Lin became fascinated with the White River, a major waterway which runs 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri. A waterway is a body of water by which ships and boats can travel such as oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, and streams. What are some waterways near where you live? Have you visited these waterways?
  • Maya Lin uses recycled silver as a medium because when Europeans first arrived in the Americas, there were so many fish in the streams that the reflections off their backs looked like lines of silver running through the rivers. What animals have you seen in waterways? Have you seen any animals in the waterways of Crystal Bridges?
  • Beaver Lake, a man-made reservoir on the White River about 20 miles east of Crystal Bridges, serves as the source for drinking water in much of Northwest Arkansas. You can find the shape of Beaver Lake on the far left of the sculpture. Think of different ways people use water daily. What activities require you to use water?

Activity: Make A 3D Waterway

Materials needed for making a 3D Waterway



Step 1: Gather your materials and lay down a sheet of wax paper, newspaper, or aluminum foil on a flat surface to work on.

watercolor activity

Step 2: Mold a ball of paraffin wax with your fingertips. Paraffin wax is soft, non-toxic, scentless, and easy to wash off hands. It is commonly used to make candles, seal bottles, wax skateboards, and moisturize skin for spa treatments. If you find that you do not like the texture of paraffin wax, you may choose to wear gloves while working with it.

watercolor activity

Step 3: Flatten the ball of paraffin wax. Apply a brushstroke of watercolor or a drop of food coloring to the middle of the flattened wax. 

If you are using a watercolor palette or liquid watercolor, you will need to dip your paintbrush in a cup of water before dipping it into the watercolor.

Helpful tip: Ice cube trays are great to use as a paint palette for liquid watercolors.

watercolor activity

Step 4: Fold the color into the paraffin wax repeatedly until you get the color you want. Set it aside. You can make multiple wax colors by repeating Steps 2-4. Be sure to rinse out your paintbrush with water in between switching colors.

Step 5: Look up a waterway near where you live or one you have visited before. Print out a map of a waterway of your choice or sketch it out with pencil and paper. Focus on the different lines and curves your waterway has. Does your waterway lead into another waterway? 

For my waterway, I chose the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. I have fond memories of floating down this river with my friends in tubes and canoes. What memories do you have of the waterway you chose?

watercolor activity

Step 6: Grab a white ceramic wall tile or a sheet of watercolor paper. Roll out a thin coil of colored wax and lay it out onto your tile or watercolor paper.

Step 7: Recreate the lines and curves of your waterway with your coil of colored wax. Pinch the coil with your fingertips to stretch the wax. Feel free to add other colored coils to make your waterway lively!

watercolor activity
watercolor activity

Step 8: After you create your waxy waterway, there are two methods to painting your 3D waterway:

For ceramic tiles, use colored permanent markers to decorate the remaining white space. Add drops of isopropyl alcohol by squeezing a pipette or flicking the bristles of a toothbrush.

watercolor activity
watercolor activity
watercolor activity

For watercolor paper, use a paint brush and watercolor palette to fill in the remaining white space. Be sure to rinse out your paintbrush with water in between switching colors.

Step 9: Set aside your painted 3D waterway to dry. You can use any leftover wax to make other landforms such as mountains, hills, canyons, etc.

watercolor activity
watercolor activity

Have fun exploring! Share your 3D waterways with us on social media – tag #crystalbridges on Instagram.


Written by Kim Ly, art instructor, Crystal Bridges.